Townes Van Zandt

Live at Union Chapel, London, England

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This is a tough one. To read Harold F. Eggers, Jr.'s liner notes, one is led to believe that these unreleased recordings of Townes Van Zandt's 1994 show at the Union Chapel, London, is the Holy Grail from the vault. And to be fair, it's certainly better than anything else he or Van Zandt's estate has yet issued. Those recordings, many of them of dodgy quality and poor performances, were simply shameful. This one, which has been raved about by Van Zandt's fans on his Internet chat site, is problematic as well. It starts with the cover photo. There's the Tomato logo in the bottom left, a black-and-white picture of a much younger Van Zandt, and no year listed on the cover, aping the sublime Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas double album released in the 1970s. Hmmm, at best that's misleading. There are 36 tracks over these two discs. Most of them are his classic tunes, and among them were then new songs that eventually appeared on No Deeper Blue, his final studio offering before he died in 1997. The sound quality here is better than anything that has been released posthumously. The venue lends itself to acoustic music wonderfully. But the next questionable thing is the performance itself. According to Eggers, Townes' "spirit was soaring." This indeed may be true, though the tour was grueling -- 38 shows in a row across Europe. What cannot be overlooked is that while Van Zandt may have been in the best shape he had been in throughout the 1990s, the toll of alcoholism is everywhere evident. His delivery both sung and spoken is slow and sometimes slurred. His guitar playing, which had been masterful in his prime, borders on rudimentary and sometimes is actually marginal. To be fair, the song selection is fantastic. Everything one would ever want to hear live is here and then some. But what's inescapable here for those listeners who had been with Van Zandt from the beginning is that this is not the artist at his best. He may have been doing what he loved best, but his ability to do it was impaired. The effort is here, no question. And he's inspired by the audience. But it doesn't make up for what's already gone. This is a sad thing to say, and hard to write. Live at Union Chapel, London, England may be the best of the artist live in the 1990s, but it's far from the best of Townes Van Zandt. And one has to question whether or not he would have even wanted these recordings released. God knows he needed the money. Certainly hardcore fans will have to have this, but that doesn't excuse the fact that this feels like a vampiric effort to keep the Van Zandt legend alive. That will live on and so will the songs without question. It's simply an opinion, but packages like this seem to undermine it more than enhance or deepen Van Zandt's monumental contribution.